Published on Sunday, April 7, 2002 in the Observer of London
Front Line Life of an Irish Peace Crusader
Caoimhe Butterly, a young woman who has devoted her life to campaigning against human rights, is trapped inside Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound
by Michael McCaughan
Caoimhe Butterly, the peace activist who is trapped inside Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound, has worked with Aids patients in Zimbabwe, the disabled in Canada, the homeless in New York and indigenous people in south-east Mexico.
'I understand the need to balance my own precious life with the need to stand up for those who have no voice,' Butterly told The Observer , speaking from the besieged compound on Thursday.
'My heart is in the refugee camps,' she added, describing the 'daily degradation and humiliation' of Palestinian families living under Israeli military occupation.
Butterly, aged 23, is a steely pacifist with a commitment to social justice, who joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organization that seeks non-violent alternatives to armed intifada by mobilizing international civil society.
Over the past month the Irish woman faced down Israeli soldiers who detained her for six hours at one checkpoint, then took a beating at another checkpoint when she intervened to defend an old man being kicked by soldiers.
Butterly has a powerful presence; she is quietly spoken, powerfully built, stands 6ft tall, and is as stubborn as a mule.
She used her first aid skills to work as an ambulance assistant in Ramallah last month, acting more as a human shield than a medical aide. The human shield is the antithesis of the suicide bomber; the latter is an indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction, while Butterly's option transforms her 'precious life' into a weapon of peace.
If there is hope left anywhere in the current conflagration, it lies in the work of international observers and Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives.
Butterly pointed out that the Geneva Convention recognizes the right to resist illegal occupation, and to live free from torture, assassination and collective punishment. The ISM volunteers accompany people to work and alert international opinion to state terror, 'putting flesh and blood into anonymous statistics'.
Caoimhe Butterly is the oldest of four children, her father is a UN economist working in Geneva, and her mother is a family therapist living in Cork. 'We fully support her work, but we are concerned for her safety,' said Mrs Catherine Butterly, 'I cannot wait to see her.' Neighbors in Cork are also anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Ramallah siege.
'Caoimhe is a remarkable, dynamic person who has a great interest in helping others,' said Annette O'Connor, who lives next door to the Butterly family in Douglas, Cork, 'she is so personable and friendly, a soft-spoken girl with great courage.'
A woman who worked alongside her last year at the English Market in Cork City described her as 'passionate, warm-hearted and loving,' despite her tendency to slip away at short notice to attend direct action protests around the country.
A lifelong traveler, Caoimhe left Ireland at the age of seven months, first to Canada, then Mauritius, Zimbabwe, the United States and Mexico, before returning to Cork last year.
'She was always very aware, a real leader,' commented her mother, speaking from Geneva, 'she has a strong belief that everyone can make a difference.'
Caoimhe's siblings - Luke, 16, Deirdre, 14, and Mark, 10 - are following the situation by the minute, torn between admiration and fear for their sister's fearless activism.
Butterly was deeply influenced by the Catholic Worker, a radical Christian action group established in the US during the post-Depression years. Dorothy Day, a founding member, spoke of her mission 'to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable'. Butterly spent several months in the Catholic Worker's New York house before moving to Guatemala in Central America, discovering the horrors of a country still in denial of the genocide inflicted in the 1980s upon its indigenous majority.
She then traveled to Chiapas state in Mexico where she spent two years among the Zapatista communities that rose in rebellion in 1994, demanding land and autonomy. The Zapatista movement, which controls a swath of territory in southeast Mexico, invited foreigners to monitor army harassment by establishing peace camps throughout the region. I spent several months researching the Zapatista movement, based in the same village as Caoimhe, watching her suffer terribly as she adapted to life in the jungle.
Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista military chief, described his own apprenticeship in the indigenous world: 'the indigenous are tough as nails,' he said, 'they watch to see if you can walk like they can, if you can carry loads like they can, it takes a long time to be accepted'. Caoimhe learnt to swing a machete as well as the locals, picked up the Tzeltal language and survived for weeks on a bowl of beans a day. 'She is one of us,' a local farmer told me, the highest accolade that can be afforded an outsider.
In an unprecedented move, the villagers agreed at an open assembly to give Caoimhe her own plot of land. 'How will we find her a man?' they asked me afterwards, following the next logical step toward community integration. I passed on the message to Caoimhe, who was unimpressed at the available prospects. 'If they can find me a man who will stay in the kitchen while I go out to work in the milpa [cornfield], I'll consider it,' she responded.
Wherever she happened to be in the world, she challenged the orthodoxies around her.
However, she took no part in the heated political debates surrounding the Zapatista movement as emotional sincerity outweighed ideological certainty, driving her to share the joys and hardships of daily life in the Zapatista communities.
'Do whatever you can wherever you are,' were her final words on the phone last week. Outside the Israeli embassy in Dublin, Venus Kamura spent her fourth night fasting up a tree. 'I'm staying here until my friend is safe,' she said, as hundreds of supporters supplied water and blankets.
Last weekend Caoimhe listened as Arafat's men said their final goodbyes on the phone to wives, sons and daughters, fully expecting to die that night. Telephones were then cut off, along with food and water supplies. Israeli shells pounded the walls and ground troops advanced from room to room inside the compound.
Butterly spoke to Israeli and Irish officials, who offered her safe passage to freedom. 'I was shit scared,' she told me, 'but I had no intention of abandoning the others.' She is confined to a few rooms in a pockmarked building surrounded by charred edifices, the crumbling remains of the Palestinian Authority. Some food and water was sent in on Thursday and there is strict rationing in progress.
The veteran activist is unlikely to be worried by the scarcity of food, as she spent 10 days fasting outside the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs last October, protesting at the government's decision to allow US warplanes to refuel at Shannon Airport. When the bombing of Afghanistan began, she was the first Irish peace activist to be detained as she attempted to block the runway.
Butterly hopes to return to Ireland this month and speak of her experiences in Palestine before returning to a cornfield in Mexico, continuing to bear witness in difficult times.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002